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The Knowledge & action lab : an investigation into the revival of the Pragmatism vs Intellectualism debate

The KAL research project is under the co-supervision of
YU Zhenhua (Philosophy, ECNU) & Jean-Michel ROY (Philosophy, ENS)          

The KAL research operation benefits from the sponsoring of the Rhône Alpes Region through the COOPERA program

       The general goal of the Knowledge & Action Lab is to foster research in the area of the theory of scientific knowledge, traditionally designated as philosophy of science or epistemology. The current understanding of the notion includes more, however, than these traditional designations, and extends to the history of science, the sociology of scientific knowledge and the study of the ethical and societal implications of scientific progress, etc. The ultimate objective of the Lab is to contribute to providing the deep, fast growing and challenging transformations of the scientific knowledge of our times with an appropriate epistemological reflection about their foundations, their significance, and their multifarious implications. As clearly illustrated by the crisis of the foundations of mathematics at the turn of the 20th  century, the evolution of scientific knowledge shows that many of its most dramatic steps were in fact the direct outcome of the pursuit of epistemological concerns apparently deprived of immediate implications for its theoretical success or its technological developments.
       Within this general perspective, the Lab will take as a main axis for its investigations the problem of the relations between knowledge and action, and therefore, between the theory of knowledge and the theory of action. Accordingly, its scientific identity will be defined by the central role played in its research activities by the following theoretical question: to what extent is action essential to knowledge, so that knowledge can be adequately analysed only if seen as an intrinsically action related activity?

       Indeed, the recent evolution of modern epistemology has been marked by a revival of the opposition between two traditions, an intellectualist one and a pragmatist one, to the point of becoming one of the most essential structuring tensions of the field. This revival is a consequence of a variety of developments belonging to a complex array of areas and subareas of epistemology. Two of these developments at least should be mentioned. Philosophical neo-pragmatism, illustrated in particular by some prominent anglo-saxons philosophers, such as Richard Rorty, John McDowell or Hilary Putnam, who offered searching criticism of the intellectualist assumptions underlying the analytical tradition and its prolongation in mainstream cognitive science. And the pragmatist neurocognitive science of action (as well as the related more general approach to cognition known as enactive and embodied cognitive science), that has brought impressive empirical evidence (such as the canonical and mirror neurons) that the brain is an organ structurally and phylogenetically geared to make action possible. A recent publication such as Jerry Fodor's LOT2 The Language of Thought revised (2009), in which the author offers a defence of a revised version of his famous language of thought hypothesis, is a perfect illustration that the intellectualist/pragmatic divide has once again become a key alternative in the theory of knowledge with wide scale implications. Fodor writes symptomatically: Cognitive science did not, as it turned out, develop in the way that LOT 1 thought it would. Rather the mainstream view, not just in AI but in philosophy and cognitive psychology, is now a kind of pragmatism: what's essential to thought is not its relation to the things in the world that it represents but its relations to the actions (behaviors) that it guides.

The debate that the revival of this crucial opposition has elicited remains however inconclusive and does not do justice to the richness and complexity of its present day situation. Accordingly, the ambition of the Lab is to develop a full, systematic and detailed treatment of it, offering the international community of epistemologists a unique research instrument for achieving real progress in its resolution. As a consequence, its activities will be deployed along the following 3 main axes of investigation:

    AXIS1. Critical analysis: understanding and assessing the present situation of the intellectualist/pragmatic alternative. This axis will aim to establish an in-depth analysis of today's theoretical geography of the problem, as well as to provide a rigorous assessment of the progress really obtained so far.
    AXIS 2. Historical analysis: investigating the roots of the present situation of the intellectualist/pragmatic alternative. Due attention will also be paid to the historical development of the alternative as the Lab project is committed to the idea that history of epistemology represents an essential instrument in the investigation of contemporary epistemological problems. Furthermore, no a priori restriction should limit the scope of historical investigation, and in particular relevant work in the tradition of Chinese philosophy will be taken into account.
    AXIS 3.  Theory construction: offering solutions to the different facets of the problem raised by the alternative. These different tasks will naturally culminate in developing theoretical proposals about the relations between action and knowledge. It is important to underline that the Lab is not committed to any specific viewpoint, but attempts to explore an important issue with a fully open-minded and scientific attitude that will ultimately favour the emergence of a certain degree of consensus in the epistemological community.

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Last update September 25, 2013
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